Democrats have been bashing President Trump's every move since long before he stepped into the Oval Office. But this week something strange happened: Democratic leadership cut a sweeping deal with the president, spoke openly about their phone conversations with him, and made multiple visits to the White House.
Although most Democrats in Washington are still celebrating that Trump sided with their leadership Wednesday on a deal to fund the government, provide hurricane relief funds, and raise the debt ceiling, the new — and seemingly sudden — productive relationship with the president is making some Democratic lawmakers and activists uncomfortable.
Some Democrats in Congress — along with groups within the "resistance," the liberal base that's organized against Trump — are openly worried about the specifics of the funding deal. They believe that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer should have pushed for an immediate fix to save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — which temporarily protected 800,000 young immigrants from deportation — that the Trump administration rescinded this week.
“It is very dangerous to go from declaring Trump the defender of white supremacy to laughing and giggling with him in the Oval Office while not standing up for such a vulnerable population as the DREAMers. It’s very dangerous. Plus, do you really think you’ve made — this man is a serial liar, and a fraud, and anybody who’s dealt with him knows this, so why would you want to put your credibility on the line by reaching this kind of agreement?” Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois told BuzzFeed News. “You don’t dance with the devil like that.”
Asked if there was a concern that working too closely with Trump would upset base supporters ardently opposed to the president, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member, told BuzzFeed News, "There's some serious consternation about that.”
“You can begin with the most obvious issue, that now there's no vehicle available to try to get DACA done, which is the urgency right now. I've heard from base organizations ... groups in my district, ‘why are you normalizing this man? Is this a sign that you're now going to be working with him, after all of these other things that have occurred?’"
"I don't think we can assume anything, and I don't think we should suddenly take an attitude that there's a new Trump in town,” Grijalva said. “What he's done in a bunch of other areas ... those are not things that we should put aside."
In a joint statement, leaders from three progressive groups — Kamal Essaheb of the National Immigration Law Center, Greisa Martinez of United We Dream, and Angel Padilla of the Indivisible Project — said the deal Schumer and Pelosi made with Trump "just one day after he killed the DACA program is not consistent with the commitment they made to immigrant youth to do everything they could to protect them. When the lives of 800,000 immigrant youth are on the line, it is no time for political games."
The burgeoning relationship between Trump and the Democratic leaders goes beyond Wednesday’s White House meeting and resulting deal, which cut against the expressed desires of GOP leadership. Trump spoke on the phone with Pelosi and Schumer Thursday morning, in addition to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, with whom he plans to have dinner Thursday night. Pelosi claimed she even got Trump to tweet a message to DREAMers after their call, and Schumer is meeting with the president at the White House again Thursday to make the case for a Hudson River rail project, a major political priority. The infrastructure meeting, Senate aides say, was previously scheduled.
Pelosi, who has taken frequent swipes at Trump since he was a candidate, laid off the president during her weekly news conference Thursday. "The world we live in is a giant kaleidoscope. One day, certain factors are in the design ... you never know,” she said. “So everybody you work with is a resource to you, or can be, so you want to have your debate and your engagement in a way that always recognizes that this person can be a resource in the next debate.”
Even as Pelosi touched on some of the major political conflicts that came about during the congressional recess, like the white supremacist rally and resulting violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, she took a muted approach to Trump, even saying that the president indicated he would sign a version of the DREAM Act that she suggested would be amenable to her conference.
"Let's hope that this is a sign of something to come, but you never know where your shared interest might be," Pelosi added when asked if this week’s deal with Trump was the start of a renewed relationship with the president.
Pelosi and Schumer did meet with a number of immigration and other progressive groups on Thursday to talk about next steps in addressing DACA, a senior House Democratic aide said. "There is definitely a way forward on [DACA], I think it's just finding the right formulation."
The aide also defended the arrangement leadership made with Trump. "Obviously [aid for Hurricane] Harvey had to be tied to the debt ceiling because of the fuse that it's on," the aide said. "If we don't have the debt ceiling and the CR [a bill to temporarily fund the government] line up, there's no reason for Republicans to work with us on anything for the rest of the year. It kills leverage for the rest of the year."
Pelosi also got some praise on the budget deal from a more typical adversary: Ohio Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan, who unsuccessfully ran against her for leadership. "Obviously, I think it’s everyone's priority to figure out how to take care of DACA, but I think we have an obligation with these natural disasters to deliver in the quickest way possible, so you know, I commend Nancy and Chuck,” he told BuzzFeed News.
Senate Democratic aides argued that Wednesday’s deal was made with a DACA fix in mind, believing that the agreement helps create the pressure to get that included in December. "The deal is designed to maximize our leverage to get our protection for DREAMers,” said one of the aides. “It was going to be difficult to do this quickly ... we think this is the most effective way to get that done."
"I don't even understand the nature of being frustrated when Democrats got exactly what they wanted," the aide said.
A national Democratic strategist involved in Senate races said although Democrats working with Trump now "could feel like whiplash, it's also momentary. Democrats aren't going to step aside and let Trump deport kids or say, 'Go build a wall!'"
"When we have the opportunity to do the right thing for constituents, we're going to the right thing," the strategist said. "But that doesn't mean we're going to give Trump a pass."
Another Senate Democratic aide argued that the deal does not cut against Democrats’ anti-Trump messaging, because it was "a process deal, not substance."
"Unless there’s a shift on the substantive issues he’s pursuing, i.e. the wall etc, we will be back in the same place we have been in for seven months," the aide said in an email.
New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney also said Democrats got the better end of the deal this week, but the party has to stay focused on DACA. "The president got rolled. Time will tell whether our other priorities will work out as well, but DACA is a critical priority and I think all of us feel we can't take our eye off that ball," he said. "The president pretty much caved yesterday."
Asked if there was a concern about being seen working too closely with Trump, Maloney added, "I don't think about it that way. You either get a good result or you don't, everything else is bullshit. So this was a good result for now, but we have to win on DACA, and that's the bottom line."
Alexis Levinson contributed reporting.